A new way to teach. A new way to learn

Johannesburg – At first, it was a way of combatting the isolation brought on by lockdown.

A way for a few lecturers and senior students in the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to come together virtually and learn something new.

It was a space of innovation and collaboration, and an antidote to those early months of Covid-induced solitude and uncertainty.

But in no time at all, it evolved, and today the brand-new UJ Scratch Coding Club is using technology to advance the careers of its student teachers and, in turn, the experiences of the young lives they will teach.

It’s bringing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) into South Africa’s classrooms and into our collective future.

Scratch is a visual programming language that uses stories, games and animations to help learners learn how to experiment, to think creatively, to reason critically, to prototype and to work together. In the world of 4IR, each of these skills is critical.

“We chose Scratch because we like its approach,” says Linford Molaodi, a lecturer in UJ’s Department of Childhood Education who is running the UJ Scratch Coding Club together with his colleague, Kenneth Baloyi. “It’s not like other coding platforms, which can involve strict and complicated rules. Our focus isn’t on coding but on developing creative thinking, and Scratch is the ideal tool to help us nurture this – both in our future teachers and in their future learners.”

While Scratch has been around for some time, it has evolved significantly since it was first developed by the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group. UJ is working closely with MIT as it rolls out the programme among its students today.

During the initial lockdown Linford initiated a coding club to introduce participating students to “Scratch”. At the time, the training didn’t offer any formal certification. Later in 2020 the Scratch Coding Club was formalised as a research project under the leadership of Prof Sarah Gravett. It was also formalised to allow participating students to earn a certificate based on a portfolio that they submit.

With an increasing number of schools using smartboards, and many learners having access to laptops and tablets, it’s important that UJ’s teachers are equipped to take advantage of their future working environments. “Scratch can be used to teach any subject, from foundation phase right through to high school,” Linford adds. “With Scratch experience under their belts, our students will be able to create Scratch content for everything from first-time readers to matric maths learners.”

UJ’s Faculty of Education is likely the first to offer this sort of training to its students. And it’s nurturing essential 4IR skills of creative thinking, problem solving, innovation and collaboration in the process. “The club has made us realise how important it is that we keep learning ourselves – we need to be curious and creative on an ongoing basis,” adds Maeketsa Mofokeng, another Scratch Coding Club facilitator who is currently doing his honours in the Department of Science and Technology Education, agrees. “The club instilled our fellow students with new confidence,” he says. “It gave us all a new tool to use in our practical teaching sessions and in the real-life classes we support, which we found enormously empowering.”

Through Scratch, the teachers that emerge from UJ will be able to teach creative coding in tandem with the school curriculum, so arming their learners for a digital future we cannot yet predict.

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